Obtuse tribal warlords, cattle rustlers, gangsters and rival youth militias
may have dished the chances of South Sudan's peace and prosperity, laments
5 - 11 January 2012
After months of speculation over whether South Sudan would degenerate into
motley warring tribal fiefdoms, it has. The deadly tribal fighting this week
in the resource-rich, oil-producing, albeit impoverished South Sudanese
state of Jonglei -- so central to the country's prosperity and economic
well-being -- was a grave reverse in the South Sudanese people's struggle to
usher in a democratic, prosperous new nation. The newly independent nation
must get a grip on the feuding ethnic groups fast. If it can do so, South
Sudan's prospects will still be good in spite of this week's bloodbath.
The hope is that in the age of YouTube and Facebook, the authorities in the
South Sudanese capital of Juba would avoid repeating the horrors of the
Sudanese civil war. In the past, successive governments in Khartoum played
one southern tribe or ethnic group against another in a desperate bid to
divide the ranks of southerners.
The tribal wars entail the torching of thatched huts, the rape of peasant
women and children, but satellite phones are conducting ethnic clashes. This
is a dangerous precedent.
Jonglei is not alone. However, its development is key to the water security
of the entire White Nile Basin, Egypt not excluded. Therefore, South Sudan
and all neighbouring Nile Basin nations including Egypt and Sudan will
undoubtedly benefit tremendously with the construction of the
long-anticipated Jonglei Canal which was the subject of the doctoral thesis
of John Garang, founder of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement
(SPLM) in South Sudan.
Jonglei literally lies in the heart of South Sudan. It is also home to
diverse ethnic groups including several key clans of the Dinka people, the
ethnic Nuer and dozens of minority groups such as the Murle. The current
fierce fighting between the Luo Nuer and the Murle threatens to spread to
other ethnic groups. As gunfire reverberated throughout the jungles of
Jonglei television pictures displayed gruesome images of mangled bodies.
It was the bloodiest episode since South Sudan attained independence in July
2011. The violence threatens to derail the peace process envisioned by the
Comprehensive Peace Agreement the SPLM and Khartoum. This week a state of
emergency was declared in Jonglei State and the government of South Sudanese
President Salva Kiir designated a buffer zone in conflict areas. Cattle
rustling activities have traditionally been endemic in South Sudan and
livestock is the main source of income in the country. Tribal society in
South Sudan is based on the raising of cattle and both the Luo Nuer and the
Murle peoples are cattle herders. The crisis erupted as the two groups
competed for fast shrinking pastureland. The Luo Nuer allegedly attacked the
Murle in the vicinity of Likuangole district. Church leaders and civil
society leaders attempted in vain to intervene. A reconciliation committee
was formed to ensure peace between the warring Luo Nuer and the Murle by the
Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (CEPO) and the Sudan Council
of Churches (SCC). Peace between the two tribes, though, cannot be
The degree of animosity is demoniac, and there is little the SCC or civil
society organisations such as CEPO can do. The ferocity of the all-out
assault on Jonglei cities such as Bor and Pibor has stirred particular
outrage in South Sudan.
The SPLM government in Juba has plainly failed to persuade the Jonglei
protagonists to change their ways or open meaningful talks with each other.
Regional and international options are limited. The neighbouring states do
not want to interfere even though the fighting threatens to spread to
Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
No one in the region is seriously recommending military intervention and
neighbouring East African governments have curiously been silent or muted in
their criticisms of the curse of internecine tribal infighting. The SPLM
government in Juba has indicated that they are prepared to trim the powers
of tribal leaders some of whom are regarded as the main instigators of the
fighting. The SPLM government wants to boost civil society organisations,
and there is no hint yet that the cash-strapped government in Juba is
running short of funds to pay local government officials in Jonglei to put
an end to the violence.
A serious challenge is that it is not entirely clear who is exactly in
command at the front. "We the Nuer Youth have decided to fight to the death
the Murle, the SPLM and the UN." A most acrimonious statement issued by a
mysterious militia ominously calling itself the Nuer Youth White Nile Army
declared. "We will wipe out the entire Murle tribe," the portentous
South Sudan's Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer himself, decried
the violence in Jonglei. He urged the Nuer militias to return to their towns
in fulfillment of a 28 December agreement between the Nuer and the Murle
tribal leaders under SPLM guidance.
"In the president's New Year message, he already ordered the army to
cooperate with the UN peacekeeping forces to make sure that civilian lives
are protected," South Sudan Minister of Information Barnaba Benjamin
concurred. He warned that a regional war drawing in neighbours was imminent
if the crisis is not contained.
The evolving list of demands of disgruntled peoples, hammered out in days
and nights of heated debate in the run-up to the referendum that determined
the political future of South Sudan as an independent nation. Juba has been
making token handouts to mollify the cantankerous tribal leaders but
obviously with little success. So the burning question in Juba and the Nile
Basin is who precisely will benefit from the tribal chaos?
Warlords and tribal militias contend for power in various parts of South
Sudan. Arms and ammunition are aplenty and in abundance throughout the
region. It is for this reason that South Sudan's president paid a visit to
Israel two weeks ago ostensibly in order to solicit security defences
against outlaws. Yet many South Sudanese believe that Israeli security
assistance is mostly rhetorical. The broader suspicion by Khartoum and
shared now by a number of Arab states and across a wide spectrum of Arab
opinion is that Israel has ulterior motives and intends to get embroiled in
the affairs of key non-Arab Nile Basin nations such as South Sudan.
Bowing to long-standing demands by certain Nile Basin nations for the
Israelis to step up technical assistance in their respective countries in
the fields of agricultural development and security, Israeli leaders are
jumping at the opportunity to do brisk business with Nile Basin nations.
This is especially so in the case of the strategically located South Sudan
with its abundant oil wealth, water reserves and agricultural potential.
This new gateway for Israel into African affairs was not vision of those who
struggled and were martyred to achieve the-long-sought-after independence of
Frustration at having been cheated out of the legacy of Garang, and the
latent fear of regression to the conflict-ridden days of the Sudanese civil
war, underlie the latest melodramatic tribal clashes. Medicins Sans
Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders, warned of a looming humanitarian
catastrophe in Jonglei. The clan leaders and their respective tribal
militias again reverted to murderous force to advance their aims.
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Received on Wed Jan 11 2012 - 18:05:39 EST